We were a motley crew – and we were hungry. We were a collection of Dave’s friends. Flint and I he knew well and there was a fellow rider, Tom, from Dave’s church. He invited them to ride with us on what Dave and I called our “last long ride of the season.” It was a ride through the mountains we shared for decades, generally just the two of us, riding the back roads over the Columbus Day weekend.
Over the years Dave and I encountered all sorts of weather on this ride. When you head into the mountains during the fall months you can expect almost anything. This year there were a few snowflakes as we rode into the evening, but it was worth it. The changing seasons always made this a colorful ride.
The state resort Dave picked for our first night was a fancy place, out in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived it was already dark. The fact it had already closed for the season wouldn’t generally have been a big deal; we could throw out our sleeping bags pretty much anywhere. We had no idea what we were near; from our maps we knew there wasn’t a town or city of any size nearby, and our stomachs were growling.
Back in those days, when our bodies were more fit, we camped pretty much all the time. With our tents set up we headed back to the main highway. Knowing there wasn’t anything to the left, our gang of four turned right and rode off into oblivion. Miles went by, then more miles. The light from our headlights, the only light we saw for mile after mile, constantly moved left and right as we wove our way through the darkness.
Finally, wedged in between two mountains (or so we could only guess), was a derelict two-story building. There was a sign above the front door, but in the darkness we couldn’t read it. The building sat only inches from the highway, leaving little room for us to pull our bikes off the road. We guessed – or hoped – that inside we might find our dinner.
At first glance we knew we might be risking our lives simply by walking into the place. The building swayed first in one direction, the second floor in the other, appearing that at some point it might someday fall, folding into itself. Back home it would have long ago been condemned.
It’s hard to draw an adequate picture of who we were and the world we entered when we walked through this building’s front door. Inside it was dark. We knew immediately this place wasn’t open to outsiders. It was where the locals went to let their hair down. We were four middle-aged men, obviously from out of state, all of us dressed for the cold. In our multiple layers of clothing we appeared well padded, looking a bit like a collection of multicolored Michelin men.
We stepped into a twilight zone of sorts, every set of eyes in the building turning to look at us. No, make that stare at us. If we four had taken a vote in that instant we’d have left without hesitation, but none of us spoke. Whatever notion of uncertainty we felt was overruled by the dinner we knew was nearby.
We found a corner table and quietly went there to hide. After all of the eyes that had watched our every step returned to their own tables, and Doris came to take our orders. She was the only “normal” we experienced inside her place. We ordered hamburgers.
We walked into someone else’s universe. We spoke in hushed tones to keep our presence to a minimum, knowing that beyond Doris, we weren’t welcome. One of us pointed to some sort of large larvae, a massive slug of some sort crawling across the floor near our table. I hate to repeat myself, but we were hungry – and none of us wanted to make a scene by simply standing up and leaving.
The inside of the building was like the outside. Everything reeked of age. There wasn’t a straight or level line anywhere. Whatever building foundation their might have once been had long ago eroded away. In the middle of the large room was a pool table. Under one of its legs was a concrete block, set there to keep its playing surface level. This building knew hard times and sadness.
To walk the floor was to understand the ocean tides. There was an ebb and flow only nature could produce. When I got up the courage, I walked to the small grocery area that lined one side of the building. After all, there was tomorrow morning to consider – or maybe not. Most of the dusty grocery items on its shelves were out of date.
Doris was what kept this place in balance – and us in our seats. She was an older woman with rich black hair and smile that told us we were okay. When our hamburgers arrived, we went about the business of filling our bellies. Halfway through our meal the main door burst open and in walked the local alpha male.
He was a rustic appearing man with an unkempt, gnarly-bearded face. He was a mountain man if there ever was one. The only thing missing was a hunting rifle, but the lack of an obvious weapon didn’t mean he wasn’t carrying something that could do us bodily harm.
He was drunk, as drunk as any man still standing I’d ever seen.
When his eyes landed on us he froze, hunched mid-stride, glaring at us as if from the pages of a Stephen King novel, his mind trying unsuccessfully to comprehend what he saw. Like him, in our own state of amazement and dare I say an element of fear, none of we four moved. I can’t recall a single sound in the room, and for a time nobody even breathed.
His evening had apparently only begun. He came in for a six-pack, something to top off what he’d already consumed in the prior hours. His order filled, he staggered back out the door. Maybe this fellow figured we weren’t worth the bother, but if it was a test, it seemed as if we passed. Once the door closed everything inside went back to what served as normal.
At some point something clicked, or maybe that was just my mind playing tricks on me again. I knew that there would be a time when I would want to share this evening and I needed something tangible to be our witness. I wanted – needed – a picture of Doris. This wasn’t something as simple as you might think, though. It required a tripod and a camera with a flash unit. You don’t do this in one or two quick minutes.
Doris said yes and the race was on. I didn’t want her to change her mind. I went to my bike and got my gear. Everyone inside was now paying attention to us. How could they not? Our process became their entertainment. We were the guys from the outside who were paying attention to their world! Finally I had everything set up and Doris joined us. This was back in the old film days, so I took a few shots and kept my fingers crossed that I had anything in my exposures.
It was time to go back out into the cold world. I dare say that maybe a few of those inside might have missed us after we left. We made quite a commotion in their midst, changing their evening as they had changed ours. What has been lost over the years is the last of my photographs, the ones where everyone in the bar joined us, making quite the group picture. Oh, how I wish I could find it.
All this happened 25 years ago. Where we stopped, even the name of the state park where we camped, have long since been forgotten. Not Doris, and not the night she made we four feel right at home.
To this day, hers is the best hamburger I’ve ever tasted.